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When he began training for the role of Muhammad Ali, he was told that it was for real: actors should go home. But he persevered and overcame the pain threshold and it made him a better man. And then one day he dropped a guy in the ring and felt his ‘fangs grow’. Andrew L. Urban meets Will Smith.

He strides in tall, a loose white shirt flapping open to reveal a low cut grey T shirt (but it’s not a T shirt, more classy) and a smile which beams like a Hollywood spotlight. “Hi, how are ya…” he says with a disarming sincerity, shaking hands, offering a presence that combines self confidence with an approachable openness.

I guess it’s not surprising that Will Smith exudes energy, radiates it like nuclear fission, blending it with natural charm and a sense of fun. He’s promoting his major screen acting achievement as boxing champ Muhammad Ali in a film directed by Michael Mann that will give Smith the heavyweight acting crown – whether officially at the Oscars or not. And he’s also just finished shooting Men in Black II. What’s not to be up about? Two more diverse roles and films could not be imagined, even by David Lynch. (Smith jokes about the jolt of going from one to the other, from the intensity of a Michael Mann telling the story of Ali to the goofiness of his character fighting aliens.)

But what turns out to be less expected is his clarity and intelligence and – by the end of the interview – a glimpse into his serious, political side. And no, it’s not insular to US politics, but outward looking to the sorry state of Africa. But we won’t get into that just yet: it’s Ali we’re exploring first, the role in which Smith gets to portray a very much alive sporting hero, political activist, religious icon – and sinner man. In the 20 odd minutes allocated to talk to him, we don’t have time to canvass half of it, but he is every bit as engaging as he appears to be on screen, keeping in constant eye contact.

"You mess this one up and it’s all over."

Smith had first turned down the role 6 years ago. “I was 27 and not ready emotionally or physically,” he says. “I was looking at Denzel Washington and Larry Fishburne and I just didn’t feel I possessed that level of artistry.” What changed his mind? Michael Mann. “He said at our first meeting, ‘I know you’re scared and you’re right. You mess this one up and it’s all over. It’s a very bad idea to be making this movie. Everyone in the world has an opinion about Muhammad Ali and you’re too famous. This is really a role for an unknown … you’re absolutely at the wrong point in your career to be doing it.’” Smith tells this like a comedian, of course, reveling in the potential pain of it. “’And that’s exactly why you should do it. We’re not going to do what people have seen; we’re going to find the Muhammad Ali who lived between the well known moments…’”

But when it all began, the intellectual approach seemed a distant irrelevance. Smith turned up to the first training session to be told by Darrel Foster, “We’re training here for fighting … only fighters here. No actors. Any actors here should go home.” That, says Smith in a nice understatement, “startled me…” Forster explained that it was training for real fighting, and the first six months would be with headgear, the second without. “Whoa! I said, you probably should tell a fella that BEFOREhand…”

The training was so tough and demanding, three months in, Smith wanted to quit. But that’s when he started to learn things about himself. “I had the rest of the year to go! When you get to that point, it makes other things seem less difficult. For example, I could ask my wife to pick up the kids . . . but if I work 14 hours and STILL pick up my son, that makes me a better father. And they (the kids) may not understand it now, but in years to come, it’ll register.”

"I felt my fangs grow,"

By the end of nine months or so, Smith was past lightweights and middle weights, sparring with light heavyweights, before tackling the big dudes. And this is when he experienced that rush of a real fighter. He tells it with the enthusiasm of a bar-room storyteller: he was in the ring with a light heavyweight and he swung a right and a left in a terrific combo that had the other guy drop. “I felt my fangs grow,” Smith says, showing his fangs grow with his fingers. “I wanted him to get UP! That was so NOT Will Smith…it was animalistic… a real fighter was awakened in me.”

The routine was fearsome, starting with daily runs at 6 am, then sparring, dialogue work, technical fighting sessions and finishing with a unique ‘suggestive’ therapy which involved Smith watching a movement by the real Ali in the ring during a fight, over and over, just before going to sleep. And then again on waking up. This was to help carve a ‘neuro passage’ in his brain that would help him recreate the action.

Where did all this come from in a man who started training as a 185 pound actor (and turned into a 220 pound boxer). He recalls a seminal incident at the age of 12, when the school bully confronted him and punched him right on the nose. “He hit me right on the tip, the worst spot….makes your eyes water, you go flubberry for ages, all that. But for me, it lasted just two seconds. I was so amazed. I looked at this guy and he hit me again…and I thought, you’re in so much trouble, because you can’t hurt me. I think of that now and how it basically drained out all my fear. That helped with this film.”

The physical aspect aside, Smith’s greatest fear was in feeling inadequate to “find the [character’s] road myself…but Michael Mann had it all mapped out.” Smith goes on to detail the extraordinary method Mann used in reverse engineering the character, as Smith puts it. “Michael’s brain works differently to everyone else’s…and yes, of course I’m jealous of it!”

"true greatness exists in humanitarian work, not sport or acting"

But as for assimilating greatness by portraying a great sporting hero, Smith is level headed – and circumspect. Carefully weighing his words, he says, “true greatness exists in humanitarian work, not sport or acting. Sometimes in politics. . .” And that’s when we get onto the subject of his own politics and Africa.

“Africa’s been raped and abandoned by the rest of the world and there needs to be some reallocation of resources.” In the ensuing (short) discussion, Smith reveals a depth of understanding about the real issues of the African continent, citing examples of individual countries and their circumstances. He knows the complexities and challenges involved, and he wants to address them. It’s the toughest role he’ll ever have to play.

Published February 21, 2002

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Will Smith as Muhammad Ali


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